Sexual Abuse

Was the Family Doing Gods Work—or Unspeakable Harms

UPDATED 07/18/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/18/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

By the time he was in his late teens Daniel Roselle had lived in eight countries. But, as he notes, it is possible to have seen too much of the world. Raised by his parents in a controversial religious group called The Family, he says that he and other children grew up in the grip of a cult that allowed the widespread sexual abuse of minors. "When I was 7, I was molested by a woman," says Roselle, now 30. "I saw orgies and wife swapping." In 1995, at age 20, he quit the Family—and left his own family-in disgust. "My parents gave me $50 and a bus ticket," says Roselle. "They told me that the world outside was evil and frightening—and that I would fail."

He hasn't, and today Roselle—who has just been accepted to the University of California at Berkeley and hopes to become an attorney—is determined to shine a harsh light on The Family, which still claims it has 12,000 members in more than 100 countries. The group's spokeswoman Claire Borowik admits that there was once abuse of children. But past police investigations in both the U.S. and abroad have been unable to link any Family member to criminal behavior. Nevertheless, Roselle and other former members contend that their complaints have prompted an FBI inquiry. (The bureau refuses to comment.) And for experts on cults, such as Rick Ross, the founder of the Ross Institute in New Jersey, an investigation of The Family is long overdue. Says Ross: "They have a history of horrific abuse."

Fueling questions about the 37-year-old group was the bizarre murder-suicide carried out in January by another ex-member, Ricky Rodriguez, 29, whose mother, Karen Zerby, now heads The Family. Rodriguez, who stabbed to death former high-ranking Family member Angela Smith, 51, in his Tucson apartment and then killed himself, had once been the group's heir apparent. But he bolted from the group in 2000, and though he talked about his own abuse, he expressed more concern about the other victims. "Every day these people are alive and free," he said in one video about the current leaders of the cult, "is a slap in the face" to those who feel victimized. "I knew Ricky was struggling," says Roselle. "When I saw the video [describing the abuse] later, I sobbed."

For its part, The Family insists that it has gotten a bum rap. Founded in California in the late 1960s by a charismatic former Pentecostal minister named David Berg, it was first known as the Children of God; early members, who numbered just a few thousand by the '70s, were for the most part commune-living hippie types who regarded Berg as their spiritual guide. (The parents of River and Joaquin Phoenix were briefly members.) According to spokeswoman Claire Borowik, The Family, like a "nudist colony," was misunderstood. But in numerous directives to his Christian flock, Berg, who went by the name Mo (for Moses), took a decidedly unorthodox view of sexual mores. "There's nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it's practiced in love," Berg wrote in one communiqué, "whatever it is, or whoever it's with, no matter who, or what age or what relative or what manner." Borowik notes that, "in hindsight, it became clear that potential problems arising from our liberal stance towards sexuality should have been anticipated and stringent rules established earlier on."

But as Roselle and others tell it, early adherents took those teachings very much to heart. Jim La Mattery, 54, was in the cult for five years but left when his wife had a child with his brother. "I didn't believe in wife swapping," he says, "or all the free love." Roselle says his parents, Daniel Sr. and Katie, joined up with the first wave of recruits. "My dad was a college student working in a Baskin-Robbins in Oklahoma City in 1970 when these hippies came by, inviting him to join them," says Roselle. There he met Katie, who had joined the year before; together they had seven children. From the start, says the younger Daniel, the group began a practice called "sharing," in which children as young as 5 were offered up by other members as sexual partners to adult followers. "I was luckier than a lot of the girls," he says. "After I got bigger, I started saying no to the sharing."

By the '70s many Family members had dispersed overseas; the Roselles, for instance, lived in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Japan and South Korea. "Children often lived apart from their parents," says Roselle, whose own parents were part of the Family hierarchy and sometimes traveled and lived without their kids. "Some of my brothers and sisters I don't know well." Roselle and others contend that, to raise money, The Family deployed its children to solicit money on the streets at the expense of any schooling. "I think I can say, 'Will you please help with a small donation?' in a dozen languages," says John La Mattery, 28, a nephew of Jim's and also a former member. Adds Roselle: "When I came out, I had a first-grade education. I was 20 years old and didn't know how to do long division."

In a statement released earlier this year by Borowik, The Family acknowledges that "during a transitional stage of our movement, from 1978 to approximately 1985, there were cases when minors were subject to sexually inappropriate advances." In the past, The Family has offered to provide counseling for any former members who believe they may have been abused. Roselle's parents, meanwhile, who remain in The Family, insist that he was never subjected to any mistreatment. In a Web posting, Daniel Roselle Sr. has denounced his son for "blatant lies and deception," arguing that he and his wife were never aware of any abuse and describing Daniel's childhood as "one of joy and happiness."

As for the "sharing," Borowik insists that minors were not routinely abused, while adding, "There are a number of ways of sharing—of clothes or of food. Sex is just one of the ways." On the subject of education she points out that the children were generally homeschooled: "If the children were not well-educated, that's not common." She does not dispute that some kids lived apart from their families. "No one is sent against their will," she says, "and most teens ask to go where there are other teens."

Yet Roselle and Rodriguez are not alone in painting a disturbing picture of the group. A Web site has been set up by former members who post strikingly similar accounts of sexual abuse of children from ex-members. Celeste Jones, 30, who lives and goes to school in Great Britain, says that in 1978 she was taken from her parents at age 4 and sent to a commune in Greece. "That was the plan—to separate the children from the parents so there would be no one to turn to," she says. "When I was told to go with one old man to 'share,' I went to an adult to help me. She told me to go, that it was all for God."

Despite these charges, efforts to prosecute the Family have been essentially fruitless. During the 1990s authorities in Spain, France, Australia and Argentina conducted investigations of the group for alleged child abuse. Children were taken into custody, but the officials were unable to make their case and charges were dropped. In the mid-'90s a British judge presiding over a custody battle involving a group member concluded that there had been "widespread sexual abuse of young children and teenagers by adult members of The Family" in the past, but added that he believed those practices had stopped. Making any criminal case is difficult, activists say, because years have passed since the alleged incidents. "The abuse took place years ago in places where the U.S. has no jurisdiction," says Stephen Kent, an authority on alternative religions at Canada's University of Alberta. "And the victims were abused by people whose names they often didn't know."

Roselle now lives in an apartment with two brothers, both of whom he convinced to leave The Family. Roselle and brother Josh, 26, who has also been accepted to Berkeley, insist they do not hate their parents. "I just think they should acknowledge their mistakes," says Daniel.

Whether or not Roselle and others will ever get a chance to tell their story in a courtroom is an open question. But some in the group have less interest in proceeding with a legal remedy. At this point Roselle would be satisfied if The Family would turn over any known pedophiles to authorities and own up to what happened. "I'd like to see a truth-and-reconciliation committee patterned after the one in South Africa," he says. "A lot of our anger would go away if they would just speak with us."

Bill Hewitt; Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles

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